By Deborah Wright and Rhoda Makled

Manufacturers of consumer products are continually evolving with new variants of their products. A major component of this is the fragrance, as the final product scent can play a major part in consumer purchasing decisions in a wide range of products. But olfactory research into variants can be a challenging prospect and innovation in sensory research can be a slow process. Whereas other branches of market research have been able to piggyback innovation through the general technological advancements of the 21st century, there is simply no other option in sensory research than having a respondent on location to take a sniff. These traditional sensory procedures are not without faults: lab-based testing centres can often be inconvenient for researchers and respondents.

Historically there hasn’t been an easy or efficient way to test differences between such prototypes, making it difficult get the right information about consumer appeal that underpins decisions about which variant to take to market. Traditional facilities where respondents are experiencing a scent on a blotter or straight from the bottle don’t receive an “in-use” simulation. Typically, when one tries to simulate an “in-use” there are significant challenges in test execution that create complexity to ensure that test samples are consistent and contamination is kept to a minimum. At the same time, it has also been difficult to be able to compare the consumer response to “in-use” conditions with that of “point of purchase” and to thereby find out if the different experiences would lead to different choices about what to develop.

Testing “In Use” vs. “Point of Purchase”

When Seventh Generation, set out to test a formulation change for a hand wash, we were faced with some significant challenges in providing the company with an accurate understanding of consumer perception to the new formulations. We found that prior to our own testing, results favored the control fragrance.  A formulation change was going to require additional testing to determine the consumer reaction to the existing and two reformulated prototype fragrances. The primary research objective was to determine which formulation (control or the test products) consumers would find the most appealing and would be most likely to purchase, both at the neat and at the ‘in-use’ stages. We needed to observe the differences between the two consumer touch points.

We conducted the testing with a sample of women, 18 – 44 years of age, who were primary shoppers, regular users of liquid hand soap and ‘Green-aware’.  In order to address some of the challenges inherent with sensory research, we needed to use an innovative system to address the requirements of the client. For this we used a new platform, the qPOD. Its construction made it possible to isolate aromas for ranking and screening and to test the warm sudsy bloom performance of a fragrance without the cross-contamination bias of the different product fragrances a typical problem with traditional methodologies, allowing to accurately test an “in use” stage. We tested four products – fragrance 1, fragrance 2, control and benchmark – in a sequential monadic test in a central location.  This took place in two stages – “in use” and “point of purchase”.

For the “in use” stage, testers sniffed the designated liquid hand wash in a warm water dilution where it was being continuously heated and stirred to a foamy state and refreshed every 90 minutes to ensure a consistent performance, and then completed a questionnaire for each. For the “point of purchase” stage 2, the testers sniffed the same products neat from glass jars and again completed a questionnaire after each.

Does Consumer Acceptance Differ? And Which Testing is Most Revealing?

In the “neat” testing phase we found that there was little or no differentiation between the existing scent and the two new formulas in terms of purchase intent or consumer appeal. All of the fragrances were equally appealing.  It was only the “in-use” dilution testing that provided Seventh Generation with further direction for the alterations of their product, providing a clear pathway for relaunch. Based on the “in-use” phase, which replicated the warm agitated dilution performance, we found that the fragrance 1 modification was equally appealing as the current hand wash fragranced formula and that fragrance 2 was considered inferior, differences that were not apparent in neat testing.

Being able to test the variants “in-use” we also discovered that the fragrance strength in dilution, an attribute challenging to test using traditional methodologies, scored significantly better for the fragrance 1 modification than the alternatives. Fragrance 1, the control and the benchmark were found to have acceptable and significantly better “just right” fragrance strength levels than Fragrance 2. The “in-use” phase also uncovered that Fragrance 1 was considered to be on par for “freshness” versus the existing formula and that Fragrance 2 was not perceived to be as “fresh” or to “provide long-lasting freshness.” There was no differentiation on product and fragrance imagery attributes at “point of purchase”.  Fragrance 1, the control and the benchmark were found to have acceptable and significantly better “just right” fragrance strength levels than Fragrance 2.

Outcomes – Which Fragrances To Take Forward And How This New Alternative For “In-use” Testing Fared

The testing confirmed that the control remained the most viable candidate for launch. At the same time, Fragrance 1 appeared to be a more suitable option for the next steps, having a stronger, fresher scent than Fragrance 2. The big learning was how important it is to be able to approximate “in-use” conditions in order to be able to uncover the real differences which would impact repeat purchase because all fragrances were equally appealing to consumers at the neat stage. The research showed how vital “in-use” like testing can be in providing quality insights that might not be consistently observed in central location dilution testing. The “in-use” testing eliminated extraneous variables, used less product, water and energy and eliminated the need for extensive safety testing of the prototype and diminished consumers’ dermal exposure to products.

By Deborah Wright and Rhoda Makled, Q Research Solutions